Thursday, May 21, 2015

Flashback: Cannes '89


It's amazing what you can find under stacks of books and papers in your home office when you attempt to bring order out of chaos. This is a pocket calendar I kept during the 1989 Cannes Film Festival -- way, way back in the days before smartphones and PDAs. (Note: That's Personal Digital Assistant, not Public Displays of Affection.) I suspect my younger colleagues who currently are covering the Cannes extravaganza will find this... well, quaint. But for those who remember the bygone era when appointments were hastily scribbled and/or crossed out while on the run up and down La Croisette from screening to press conference to interview -- maybe it will jog some pleasant memories.



This was the day Spike Lee shook up the festival with the world premiere of Do the Right Thing, a movie that seemed to shock, if not terrify, some members of the U.S. press in attendance. I opted to attend all of the post-screening press conference in the Palais du Festival instead of leaving early to see a nearby market screening of Bill Forsyth's Breaking In (which I caught, and greatly enjoyed, two days later). A wise move: The press conference (which can be viewed in its entirety on the Criterion Collection DVD of Do the Right Thing) turned out to be classically confrontational in the grand Cannes tradition, with a few (white) U.S. journalists voicing concern that Lee's film would somehow incite race riots when it opened in urban areas across America a few weeks later. (BTW: It did no such thing.) But wait, there's more: Some more or less accused Lee of offering an inaccurate view of inner-city life because none of his African-American characters indulged in drugs. Not surprisingly, Lee had some choice words for his more outspoken critics.

Around noon, the mood was somewhat lighter during a luncheon on the private beach of the Majestic Hotel for Wired, the ill-starred film version of Bob Woodward's controversial book about the late John Belushi. Mind you, the movie had for all practical purposes been declared dead on arrival after its world premiere screening (and subsequent press conference) the day before. And there already was talk that friends and admirers of Belushi would make sure Michael Chiklis -- who played the self-destructive comic star in the reviled biopic -- never worked again. (And we all know how successfully that turned out, right?) But I must admit: I had a very pleasant time sharing a table with Woodward and Roger Ebert, chatting about the life and legend of Belushi, and all the while thinking (not for the first or last time in my career): "And just think -- I'm getting paid for this."


A busy morning of back-to-back interviews with James Spader, who would go on to win the festival's Best Actor prize for Steven Soderbergh's sex lies and videotape (which was honored with the prestigious Palme d'Or); and Rod Steiger and Tom Conti, who were promoting something called That Summer of White Roses, a WWII drama I have never seen, or been encouraged to see. What I remember most vividly about this day is the moment when Conti told me his next project was a film version of Noel Coward's Private Lives. (Never happened, unfortunately.) Before I could tell him how promising that sounded, Conti proceeded to tell me what the play was all about -- and just who Coward was. Under normal circumstances, I might have felt insulted by his presumption of my ignorance. But I knew better than to take it personally: After all, this was Cannes, and Conti had likely spent the better part of the day talking with journalists who really didn't know, or care, who Noel Coward was.



I'm a tad surprised to see so little on my schedule for the penultimate day of Cannes '89. I mean, one lunchtime interview and a single evening screening? (Maybe I was writing, or packing, the rest of the time?) But never mind: My most cherished Cannes memory is my long chat with French film icon Phillipe Noiret. As I wrote nine years ago on the occasion of the great actor's passing:

We were supposed to chat primarily about his performance as the projectionist who brings magic and memories to a small Sicilian village in Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (which had received a standing ovation after its festival premiere on the previous evening.) But the conversation – lubricated, I must admit, by some splendid wine – weaved and wandered lazily among other items on his lengthy resume. I tried very, very hard not to gush, and I think I may have succeeded. But if I didn’t, Noiret was too kind to make sport of me. Indeed, as we parted, he leaned over the table, looked deep into my eyes and graciously murmured: “You asked very interesting questions.” Short, dramatic pause. “And I do not say that to all of your colleagues.” I think I saw other movies, and interviewed other people, during the remainder of the festival. But I don’t remember any of them. All I recall is people asking me why I had such a goofy, glowing grin on my face.

I have not been to the Cannes Film Festival since 1990. (That was the year David Lynch's Wild at Heart won the Palme d'Or -- and caused an even greater freak-out than Spike Lee did.) Have I ever wanted to return? I would be a liar if I said no. But each time I remember my close encounter with Philippe Noiret, I tell myself: Be grateful for the memories you already have.


Memories like... being at that Do the Right Thing press conference.

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This is terrific, Joe, thanks for sharing. I have to admit that I am jealous.

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